UNITED NATIONS: Afghanistan is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe and its collapsing economy is heightening the risk of extremism, the UN’s special representative for the country warned on Wednesday.

Deborah Lyons said the United Nations predicts that 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s 38 million people face “crisis levels of hunger” in a food emergency that will likely worsen over the winter. She said the country’s GDP is estimated to have contracted by 40pc.

However, she told the UN Security Council that a humanitarian catastrophe is preventable, saying the main cause is financial sanctions on the Taliban, who took over the country in the middle of August. Sanctions have paralysed the banking system, affecting every aspect of the economy, Lyons said.

The reserves of Afghanistan’s central bank of $9 billion, most of which is held in the United States, were frozen after the collapse of the former government. Afghanistan was also slated to access about $450 million on Aug 23 from the International Monetary Fund, but the IMF blocked the release because of a lack of clarity about a new government.

Lyons said the paralysis of the banking sector would push more of the financial system into unaccountable and unregulated informal money exchanges. That, she said, “can only help facilitate terrorism, trafficking and further drug smuggling that will first affect Afghanistan and then infect the region”.

She said a major negative development has been the Taliban’s inability to stem the expansion of the militant Islamic State (IS) group, which now seems to be present in nearly all provinces and is increasingly active. The number of attacks attributed to IS has increased significantly from 60 last year to 334 this year, she said.

Lyons urged the international community to find ways to provide financial support to the Afghan people, who she said, “feel abandoned, forgotten and indeed punished by circumstances that are not their fault.”

Abandoning them would be a historic mistake, she said.

“We must focus for the next three or four months on helping the most vulnerable Afghans during the winter,” said the UN envoy. “The international community needs urgently to find a way to provide financial support to health care workers in state hospitals, staff in food security programmes, and, yes, eventually to teachers provided that girls’ right to education is emphatically met,” she added.

She assured council members that the UN would make every effort to ensure that funds would not be diverted to the Taliban — or by the Taliban.

Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2021

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